ONE OF THE REASONS I love Alaska is that almost every conversation between skiers, hunters, whitewater enthusiasts, fishermen, or mountaineers ends up being a discussion about the state. If you start out talking about kayaking the Everglades, you'll soon be discussing a paddling trip up through the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. And if you're chatting about striped bass in Montauk, it won't be long before the conversation progresses to the salmon runs of the Yukon River. It's like a law of nature: Alaska is the final word on everything outdoors, the exclamation point at the end of every adventurous sentence.
Maybe it has something to do with its size. I keep a large topographical map of the state pinned to the wall of my bedroom. A lot of times I'll be in the middle of some mundane task, like picking up clothes or making the bed, and I'll catch myself just staring at it. My eyes will drift westward to Umnak Island, way out toward the tip of the Aleutian archipelago, in the Bering Sea. Then they'll move across the map in an upward diagonal direction to where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge takes in the Romanzof Mountains. The distance between those points is about 1,400 miles, roughly the distance from New York City to Houston. When staring at the map, I'm often visited by an overwhelming sense of bewilderment and lust. Before I can go back to whatever I was doing, I select some point on the map and make myself a promise: Someday I'm going to visit that spot.
Fulfilling these promises is not always easy. A few years ago, I had a chance to visit one of the most remote points in the state (and, therefore, one of the most remote points in North America). First I caught a commercial flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks. There I climbed into the co-pilot's seat of a single-engine propellor plane hauling geological supplies to a camp on the Arctic tundra. Three hours after flying over the Yukon River, we landed on a gravel airstrip next to a helicopter pad and a tent. I was now 160 miles from the nearest road, which was dirt. Then I took a half-hour helicopter flight, and after flying over three of the state's approximately 10,000 wolves and two of its 30,000 grizzlies, we reached our destination. I thought about how we usually travel in order to become intimate with new places. But when traveling in Alaska, any sense of physical intimacy is counterbalanced by a landscape that is gloriously incomprehensible.
I've been hanging around in Alaska since my brother took a position as an ecologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2000. During the past decade of adventures, I've experienced a litany of things that constitute my own personal biggest, best, and baddest. I had my closest brush with death while floating down the Chetaslina River in a leaky drysuit after a buffalo hunt, hanging from the side of an inflatable pack raft loaded with more than 300 pounds of meat in the sub-freezing temperatures of an October night. I had my most startling moment in the Chugach Mountains when my partner came rolling and screaming downhill after getting zapped in the shoulder by a porcupine that was hidden in an alder. I had my most nerve-racking moment at sea while motoring a small skiff with my brother through the current-ripped passages of Southeast Alaska last December; it was perfectly dark at 4 p.m., and we hit a submerged log that knocked out the engine and caused a surge of water to crash over the bow. And I was most blown away by the beauty of the earth when I crested a divide in the Alaska Range and looked out over a corrugated landscape of rock and ice that had turned freakishly red in the sunlit smoke of a distant tundra fire.
There's no need to be intimidated by such tales. Believe it or not, you can ease into Alaska. The first step is to name your desire. Start with something specific: You want to gawk upward at Denali, North America's highest peak; or you want to watch beluga whales gorge on migrating salmon during the high tide in Turnagain Arm, near Anchorage; or you want to hear the eerie, catlike meow of a rutting moose on the Kenai Peninsula.
From there, one thing will lead to another. A few years ago, I went on a fishing trip to Prince of Wales Island, in Southeast Alaska. The labyrinthine coasts of the islands and fjords continued to haunt my imagination when I got home. Before I could return, I'd become the proud owner of a cabin on the island. It sits on pilings over the confluence of a mountain stream and the ocean. It is accessible only by boat or floatplane. The creek has a salmon run. Needless to say: If you start talking to me about cabins, you can see where the discussion will lead.